Context: Alaska Airlines, an iconic brand, has landed a new agency earlier this year. I took a notice and set out to come up with a new brand vision for them.

1. The industry: Current situation

Air travel is a quintessential "red ocean" industry. Cultural orthodoxy makes most airlines focus their brand messages on one of the following ideas: planes are epitome of innovation, air travel is a luxury, planes can bring you to awesome places. Cultural innovation attempts are very superficial and fail to change the air travel discourse in any significant way. The industry is ripe for a cultural change.

(Below is just one recent example of such orthodox approach to airline advertising (W+K NY); I can't imagine this spot evoking anything apart from an eye roll)

Today, flying is a commonplace. Technology is taken for granted. It's akin to taking a bus. It's about getting from Point A to Point B with a layover in Denver. It's a synonym of a "(mild) discomfort", something to tolerate, something you can hopefully sleep through.

(This relatively old bit from Louis CK below is funny, because it's true)

(Attempts to "make air travel fun again" may lead to incremental improvement - funny sells. Below you can see the ad for Virgin America trying to show you that flying with them is as fun as going clubbing. Yet, dance floor tunes and moodlighting are poor substitutes for meaning and therefore offer a short-term solution at best).

Companies dreaming of attracting millennials (one of the faster growing segments in air travel, see below) often miss the point spectacularly. Appropriating stale low value cultural codes provides for cringe-worthy creative.

This safety video for (again) Delta, projects essentially post-modern values (mixing high- and low-brow cultural codes, form as a message, etc). It falls flat: the connected generation registers cultural appropriation devoid of authenticity.

Conclusion: Cultural orthodoxy (technology as a miracle, air travel as a luxury) is clearly not delivering good results. Post-modern attempts to attract younger generation are ill-advised and do not offer a meaningful cultural innovation. This is an opportunity for Alaska Airlines.

1. Alaska Airlines: Exploration

Not having access to the internal research of the company or expensive databases can make things more fun - it forces you to be creative. But where do I start?

In order to understand specific business challenges of Alaska Airlines, I dove deep into the industry press (Plunkett Research aggregator provided at my current job helped). What have I learned?

  • History of Alaska Airlines
  • Financial situation at the company (one of the few profitable airlines)
  • Main strategic growth initiatives (routes expansion, aircraft purchases, etc.)
  • Recent rebranding initiative
  • Competitive rivalry with Delta

This did not fully satisfy me. The information was often too brief and superficial. Plus, I needed something that comes from the company itself (company's "voice"). A friend in investment banking was recruited to give me access to the account.

This was not perfect either. I was impressed with company's financials and business success, but still did not find what I was looking for in terms of competitive analysis and company's own description of operations. The solution came in a form of a 10-k filing. Here's what I learned (a lot of things, actually):

  • Alaska Airlines connects over 100 cities
  • Seattle and Portland account for 60% of company's traffic (core cities)
  • 20 new markets were added in 2015
  • 8% capacity increase was projected in 2016
  • Alaska's major rivals are the 4 major airlines
  • Delta is the most active of competitors. 60% of Alaska's Seattle capacity is under competition from Delta.
  • Competition (route overlap) is expected to grow by 13% in 2016.
  • Both major and ultra-low-cost airlines may potentially compete on price, forcing Alaska to bring down prices in their core markets.
  • About 60% of earnings come from the West Coast region, while Alaska contributes about 15%.
  • Yet the demand suffers from seasonality.
  • In order to compensate for this - Alaska Airlines expands to popular holiday destinations, such as Hawaii and Costa Rica.
  • "People focus" is one of the primary values of the company. Both internally and externally.
  • "Hassle-free experience" can also be understood as part of the broad people-focused approach
  • Company states the need to create a compelling brand that would "reflect how customers feel about" the company.

Good. That was already something. I had an understanding of what the company wants, its external and internal environment. The next step was clear - construct POVs of Alaska's customers.

2. Data collection and analysis

For that purpose I logged into my Brand 24 account and launched a social monitoring project.

Alaska Airlines has almost no distinct online presence. The spike in mentions and engagement at the end of the year is caused by 3 news stories (use of biofuel, acquisition of Virgin America, and, lo and behold, Young Thug's mother forcing the rapper to apologize for his rude comments to Alaska's staff). There is hardly any consistency in the company's online presence.

Although Brand 24 analysis showed 3/4 of mentions being "positive", I decided to take a closer look at what people are actually saying.

I focused on the qualitative analysis of Yelp reviews (from company's official Yelp page) and tweets hash-tagged #alaskaairlines.

Over 500 Yelp reviews and 1000 tweets were uploaded in MAXQDA software for coding and further analysis.

This analysis allowed to identify a number of important issues.

  • Customers mostly mention the quality of service (most of the time in a positive key, often - in a harshly negative way)
  • Customers also value reasonable prices/good value for money offered by Alaska Airlines.
  • Loyalty program is quite popular among customers.

Yet, these data suffered from a clear self-selection bias: only those customers who hold strong opinions about Alaska Airlines would bother to write/tweet a review.

Also, due to the nature of these websites, there was almost no information on how people perceive the brand itself.

The next step was obvious - I needed to interview Alaska's customers. I waited until the work week was over and hopped on the plane to Seattle.

Here's what I learned after 12 hours at the Sea-Tac airport and 20 face-to-face interviews:

1. When asked to provide free associations to the brand name, the cognitive component seemed to dominate the responses, which can be classified into

  • Service-related: “easy”, “efficient”, “innovation”, “free checked bag”, “good loyalty program”, “companion ticket”; and
  • Destination-related: the brand name is associated with a specific route, common for Alaska-based customers ("Juneau", "Kodiak", etc).

2. When asked to describe brand as a person, respondents mainly focused on the following characteristics: "easy going", "friendly", "a good friend", "someone you know well", "good ole Uncle Jim".

3. Quite a few respondents pointed out that Alaska Airlines is still a giant corporation and therefore their personality should not be trusted ("at the end they will always do what's good for their bottom line", "it is easy for a big company like this to create any message they want", "I don't trust any marketing"). However, even then respondents emphasized that they do not have anything against Alaska Airlines specifically ("don't get me wrong, I still like them", "I have no major beef with them")

Screenshot from Alaska Airlines irony-clad ad that left no lasting impression on customers.

4. Not one of the respondents could recall any of the Alaska's ad campaigns. Despite the fact that Alaska's TV (later - online) ads are traditionally fun, they hardly create any lasting impression on customers.

5. The most emotionally charged moments happened when people were telling their life stories. Alaska Airlines in these stories did not exist as a brand but rather - as people or as a function.

Brandon, 27: "I remember flying to Kodiak from Anchorage. It was very foggy, the plane was tiny. Two pilots personally welcomed everyone aboard - kind of like "hop in, let's get you to Kodi!" It was cool!"
John, 61: "I lived in Alaska for 35 years and at that time it was my only way to get in and out of Alaska... I moved to Colorado. But now, my brother's wife is dying. I had to come. She has ALS, so we have to watch her in shifts. I do nights, my brother does days. Alaska was the best way to get there"

3. Synthesis.

Principle findings
  • Alaska Airlines has customer trust and respect, but does not have a distinct brand personality
  • Customers see Alaska Airlines as people: "great bunch of guys and gals", "almost like a family-run business". This is very valuable.
  • The new brand personality has to come as a result of evolution - it is important not to lose people's support along the way.
  • It has to work equally well for core markets (Washington, Oregon, Alaska), and for new destinations (domestic as well as international).
  • It has to effectively differentiate Alaska Airlines from major competitors.

It is clear that Alaska Airlines should focus on the rapidly growing millennial segment of the market. Born between 1981 and 1991, highly educated, collectivist yet independent, millennials will account for almost half of all business travel by 2020 (BCG Report, 2013). This demographics is currently being courted by all major airlines, yet their understanding of millennial generation often is just beyond trivial (internet memes and TED talks).

Firms are routinely ignoring the deeper drive of this generation - the search for authenticity and meaning (PEW Research, 2010).

Message and Tone

Alaska Airlines needs to reject cultural orthodoxy ("technology", "progress", and "luxury" of air travel) and focus on the "real people". It is not about how we fly, it's about who we are, and what do we do when we get to our destination.

Alaska Airlines has a chance of appropriating the still nascent metamodernist culture: embed a simple, honest, and even naive message in today's tech-infused PoMo discourse.

Cutting through the noise of pretentious and ultimately dishonest campaigns of competitors, Alaska’s voice is the voice of real people.

Alaska is sincere, humble, slightly understated, democratic, and personable. It does not need spotlight; it does not try to crown itself as “the best in the biz”. Titles do not matter.

Human connection, raw life, people’s stories, and truth - Alaska Airlines is made of us.

Promotion Ideas

Core idea: The story of Alaska Airlines is made of interwoven stories of our passengers.

TV/Web: Series of short films (~3-5 minutes) depicting the experiences of passengers with Alaska Airlines (the brand stays in the background, the spotlight is on people and their stories).

Social and Mobile:

  • Twitter accounts for planes and crews;
  • A plane-spotting app that send notifications when Alaska's aircraft passes the user by: Spotting a plane adds miles to the MVP account;
  • A selfie-corner on the plane (decorated in a different way for each aircraft);
  • Ticket booking/customer service via messaging app (WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger)

Clearly, this little presentation is not intended as a definitive guide for brand strategy building. Still, I hope it was at least a bit inspiring!

Thank you for taking a time to look through my work! I would be grateful for any feedback!


Created with images by acidpix - "sky" • Craighton Miller - "Alaska Airlines Inbound" • USFWS Mountain Prairie - "Sunrise at Waubay National Wildlife Refuge" • StockSnap - "airport runway tarmac" • Connygatz - "nature rainbow double rainbow" • JazzGo_ - "red nose color splatter joy" • skeeze - "space needle seattle washington" • Unsplash - "portland oregon tourism" • tpsdave - "hawaii mountains sky" • tpsdave - "costa rica landscape mountains" • cogdogblog - "Into the Airport Light" • jkbrooks85 - "Welcome to Kodiak" • USDAgov - "Harvard Forest" • qimono - "philatelist stamp collection stamp" • MarioMancuso - "audience" • rightee - "Graffitti"

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